They don’t look like much at first, the black, potato-shaped blobs that lie scattered on the seabed, deep beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.
But as is so often the case, looks can be deceiving.
These nodules, and the metals that lie within them, are at the heart of a new and potentially lucrative mining frontier.
Metals like cobalt, copper, nickel and manganese have been mined on land for years, but going deep into the ocean to find them is becoming an increasingly tantalizing prospect. Companies like DeepGreen Metals and Nautilus Minerals — both with Canadian ties — have invested millions in preparation to raise the minerals from the seabed.
The metals in question are found in three sources: those potato-sized nodules; seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) deposits around hydrothermal vents; and cobalt-rich crusts near underwater mountains.
“In our nodules are all the metals that we need for a more sustainable planet.”
That there are metals lurking deep in the sea has been known for more than a century. They were even at the heart of a secret CIA deception in the 1970s, in which the agency tried to retrieve a Soviet submarine northwest of Hawaii, under the pretense of a mission fronted by billionaire Howard Hughes to mine manganese nodules. (It didn’t work out that well.)
But the push to mine the ocean floor has picked up significant pace in recent years, particularly as demand for the minerals is projected to increase, thanks to their role in the manufacture of high-tech devices like electric car batteries, wind turbines or smartphones. One projection has suggested global demand for copper, estimated at 26 million tonnes in 2016, will rise to 40 million tonnes per year by 2030.
Take, for example, the average five-megawatt wind turbine. DeepGreen CEO Gerard Barron says 15 tonnes of manganese, five tonnes of nickel and five tonnes of copper are needed to build it. And then you have to store the energy in batteries, which are made with nickel, manganese and cobalt.
Barron says the company refers to them as “metals for our future.”
“And why we say that is because the metals that are in our nodules are all the metals that we need for a more sustainable planet.”
Deep sea miners say the business makes great sense for other reasons, too. It comes without many of the social and environmental ills that have taken a toll when the same minerals are pulled from the land — child labour, for example.
Deep sea mining hasn’t started on a commercial scale yet, but its supporters say it could help make a more sustainable world. Others are saying, hey, wait a minute — is going thousands of metres down in the water for these metals really the best way to go?
“We have to go out there and use our resources to live the life we want, and I have no issue with that,” said Verena Tunnicliffe, a professor and Canada Research Chair in biology and earth and ocean sciences at the University of Victoria. “We cut trees. We mine on land. We use our waters … We get fish.”
But have we thought enough about what might happen if mining takes off underwater? Tunnicliffe isn’t so sure.
“We know so little about the deep sea, and that’s what worries me so much.”
Nautilus Minerals is placing its bets on the Solwara 1 site in the Bismarck Sea, about 25 kilometres off the shore of Papua New Guinea. The company’s energies are focused on finding a way to retrieve the copper and gold in SMS deposits lying around hydrothermal vents about 1,500 metres below the ocean surface.
The company’s origins date back to 1996 — one of its co-funders was Canadian gold mining giant Placer Dome, where Nautilus’s current CEO, Mike Johnston, used to work.
Nautilus was involved in an industry research collaboration that discovered a number of hydrothermal vents in the Bismarck Sea. Drilling, research and geophysics made the company think it was onto something.
“Once we thought we had enough … very, very high-grade material to mine, we then started the detailed environmental studies,” says Johnston.
Nautilus, which is listed on the TSX and Nasdaq, hopes to bring metals to the surface by late next year.
Nautilus’s first project, Solwara 1, has a mine site of about 0.1 square kilometres, which Johnston likens to the size of 11 football fields. The physical mine is quite small compared to more traditional land-based mines – for example, Rio Tinto’s Kennecott copper mine in Utah is 4.4 kilometres across, 1.2 kilometres deep and visible from outer space.
The Solwara mineral deposits are on the surface of the seabed. Massive mining machines that look like something out of science fiction will crawl along the surface, gathering up material containing the minerals.
“It’s basically a skin of about 10 or 12 metres that we’ll be mining off the surface,” says Johnston. “That’s as deep as we go for the first mine.”
The material mined off the sea floor comes up to a boat on the surface as a slurry using a pump developed for the oil and gas industry. The water and material will be separated, and the water pumped straight back down. The steel riser system is totally enclosed.
Johnston says his company tries to balance a desire to mine with environmental concerns, especially in hydrothermal vent areas.
“Mining has impacts,” says Johnston. “There’s no way around it. It has a lasting impact and you have to manage that impact. You have to understand what that impact is going to be. So to understand what the impact will be, first you have to understand … the existing environment.”
Johnston says the mines are designed to have as small an ecological impact as possible. “There are cheaper ways of doing it than what we’ve selected, but they all would have had a larger… environmental footprint.”
The system to lift the material from the seabed “is designed such that the water from different parts of the water column [is] not mixed.”
Traditional pumping, Johnston says, would result in the cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean being discharged in the upper water column, “potentially creating a large footprint.”
“This is what is done by dredging companies and other people looking at deep sea mining. It’s the cheap option.”
Johnston says the copper in the Solwara site is 10 to 15 times higher grade on average than copper mined on land.
But that’s not the only advantage he sees to mining in the sea. It’s also a way to avoid another controversy that has dogged the industry for years: the use of child labour in land-based mining, particularly in Africa.
“Recovering [minerals] from the seafloor, if you do it right, you can potentially have a smaller physical impact than what you would if you were chasing the same minerals on land. And you can definitely assure people that you’re not using child labour, you’re not lining the pockets of dictators.”
None of this comes cheaply. Johnston says expenditures so far on preparations for Solwara 1 have been close to $400 million, with another $250 million to come.
Reports have surfaced of financial difficulties and uncertainties along the way, but Johnston says the company has “very supportive shareholders.” The largest shareholder is MB Holding, founded by Mohammed Al Barwani of Oman. The second biggest is a subsidiary of Russia’s largest iron ore miner.
Solwara 1’s deposits are in an area with hydrothermal vents, which spew hot, mineral-rich fluids from under the ocean floor. They form where seawater meets magma, which is associated with underwater volcanoes.
Johnston says most of it is “inactive venting,” a description John Jamieson, head of the Marine Mineral Resource Laboratory at Memorial University of Newfoundland, questions.
A site such as Solwara 1, or those of seven other exploration contracts granted by the International Seabed Authority, were discovered precisely because they are active, Jamieson said in an email from a research vessel in the South Pacific.
“This is relevant because there is a growing push to ban mining activities at or near active hydrothermal vent sites, which host unique ecosystems that occur nowhere else on the planet (that we know of),” he wrote.
“Inactive or extinct deposits would be a much more [environmentally] favourable target for mining, but are much more difficult to find, and we know very little about their distribution on the seafloor.”
The push to mine the seafloor has its share of paradoxes, particularly when it comes to knowing what’s going on below.
“Ironically, the push to mine the seafloor has been a wake-up call for the global community with respect to how little we understand over 70 per cent of our own planet’s surface,” says Jamieson.
The economics of the endeavour and the projected demand for the metals over the next few years suggest it could be a moneymaker.
“It used to be the case that technology was regarded as one of the major limiting factors that would prevent [deep sea] mining from ever becoming economic, but I am convinced from what I have seen that is not the case,” says Michael Lodge, secretary general of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is in charge of setting regulations for how mining will occur in international waters.
“Everybody gets excited about things like Elon Musk going to space, but I think being able to operate these machines at 5,000 metres … depth is equally if not more exciting.”
The ISA was set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, and a subsequent agreement in 1994. Lodge says the biggest challenge facing the organization right now is getting agreement on regulations. The second major challenge, Lodge says, is “managing the environmental impacts so that they can be minimized.”
So far, the ISA has issued 29 contracts for mineral exploration.
DeepGreen Metals, which is incorporated in British Columbia, has a partnership with the tiny Pacific country of Nauru, enabling it to hunt for polymetallic nodules in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone, about 1,600 kilometres offshore from Mexico.
Barron, the company’s CEO, says the environment and ocean health are “very much at the core of everything we do.” The company, which is in the midst of its feasibility works and environmental studies, is planning a process he says will generate no tailings and no waste.
“All we have to do is go down and collect [the nodules] and bring them to the surface … it’s a very different environmental footprint” than efforts to extract metals from SMSs and cobalt crusts.
Barron says the process will reverse the way in which the nodules were formed, as they grew over millions of years out of metals contained in the water.
“We … grind them up, mix them with an acid solution, silica drops out … metals move into a liquid form … [and] by the end of the process, we have zero waste.”
DeepGreen will use nitric acid to dissolve the nodules and separate the metals. By the end of the process, Barron says, only the manganese and the acid remain. The solution is heated up, the nitric acid is released as a gas and can be transferred back to the start of the process. DeepGreen is left with a solid manganese oxide product.
“So it’s a real step-change for the mining industry,” Barron says.
Few would question that pulling metals out of the deep sea will cause some kind of disturbance to the environment and ecosystems.But what will that impact be? And how severe? And how do you try to balance that with the apparent need to find sources for metals that are in ever-higher demand?
“I think we have to be realistic, but also at the same time be cautious as deep sea ecosystems are quite difficult to understand scientifically,” says Derek Tittensor, a senior marine biodiversity scientist at the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
“This is an opportune time, because we are at the very start of this activity occurring and often we react … to impacts after they have already occurred, and by then it’s too late, and the damage is often done.”
Verena Tunnicliffe at the University of Victoria, for one, is strongly opposed to mining at vents.
“The species that are found there are found nowhere else, and the adaptations these animals show are extraordinary,” says Tunnicliffe, who is also a member of the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative.
Take, for example, the hairy snail, which has been found in the western Pacific near Japan and at hydrothermal vents in Tonga, New Guinea, and the middle of the Indian Ocean.
The snail, which can grow up to eight centimetres across – “pretty big for a snail,” Tunnicliffe says – can live in temperatures of up to 40 C and survive the highly acidic water around vents.
The snail’s existence shows “how animals can adapt to really extreme conditions,” says Tunnicliffe. Such discoveries are giving physiologists insight and “some of these are just interesting ideas about [how] to do life differently.”
This species of the hairy snail was found at a depth of 3,900 metres in the western Pacific Ocean. (SOI)
Others share Tunnicliffe’s concern about the potential impact of mining around hydrothermal vents. Broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough was aghast when the BBC showed him video of the massive mining machines being prepared in Papua New Guinea.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said the Blue Planet narrator. “That’s where life began, and that we should be destroying these things is so deeply tragic — that humanity should just plough on with no regard for the consequences, because they don’t know what they are.”
Other scientists look at it differently, including geologist Bramley Murton, associate head of marine geoscience at the National Oceanography Centre in the U.K. That same BBC story noted Murton’s caution against “an ill-informed knee-jerk reaction” to ocean mining, along with his view that it could support a low-carbon future.
So the questions become: What would be lost if these ecosystems are disturbed? How much does something like that matter? Tunnicliffe would argue, quite a bit.
“We’re beginning to understand these are tiny strings of pearls, and losing a few of those pearls could possibly break the chain.”
From Tunnicliffe’s perspective, the time spent giving consideration to environmental concerns lags significantly behind the time spent developing the mining technology and how the ISA will work with contractors on the actual mining.
That’s because the contractors have stakeholders who are putting money into exploration and “conceptual developments,” she says.
“The environment has had no money,” says Tunnicliffe. Or very little in comparison. She and colleagues with research grants have gone out and done some work, and she emphasized that a couple of contractors have also supported science being done in this area.
Tunnicliffe isn’t suggesting natural resources should never be used. But she suggests putting the brakes on deep sea mining “until we’re absolutely convinced this is something we need, and stop until we know what we’re trading off and what we’re going to lose, and that we’re happy to make that trade-off because we can see the benefits for mankind and we’ve laid out the winners and we’ve understood the losers.
“I think we’re nowhere close to that.”
While those like Tunnicliffe who are watching developments around deep sea mining see less time spent on environmental issues, Lodge says he doesn’t “recognize that picture at all.”
“If you look at the work the [International Seabed] Authority has been doing for the last 20 years, I would say that nearly 70 per cent of it relates to environment,” he says. “How are you going to get environment information without doing exploration?”
Barron wants people to have a favourable image of his company.
“I want DeepGreen to be that company that people in society say, if it’s going to happen, I want these guys to make it happen because I can tell they care about the environment in a way that no other metals company has ever been able to care for the environment,” says Barron.
We all want to live on a more sustainable planet, he says, and to do that, he sees a need to move from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But where do you get the necessary metals?
“Do we want to go to the Amazon?” Barron asks. “Do we want to go to the … forests of Indonesia, do we want to go to the most densely tree-populated areas, which is where many of these metals are, or do we want to go to this very benign environment on the seafloor?”
For Jamieson, who holds a Canada Research chair in marine geology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, it would be hard to argue that mining is ever good for the environment – on land or underwater.
“Concern is certainly justified,” he says. “At the same time, society’s demand for resources continues to increase, far beyond what can be sustained by recycling, and these resources must be mined from somewhere.
“Is seafloor mining more environmentally friendly than land-based mining? This is something we simply don’t have enough information yet to answer.”